Unless you live in sunny California, the winter months are actually wintry. Most of the country experiences rain, frost, snowstorms, and freezing temperatures. For vegetable gardeners, these cold months pose additional challenges. While it may seem impossible to nurture a vegetable garden to production in freezing temperatures, there are actually easy ways to be a successful winter gardener!
What is Dormancy?
During the winter months a majority of plant life goes into a state of hibernation, also referred to as dormancy. In order to care for a winter vegetable garden, it’s important to understand how and why plants fall dormant.
Just as human bodies store energy reserves, plants build up reserves by turning carbon dioxide, water, and inorganic salts into carbohydrates and sugar. This is called the photosynthetic process, where plants “convert light energy into chemical energy that can later be released” as fuel. As the temperature drops and the days shorten, plants begin their dormant cycle by transferring these fuel reserves from their leaves to their roots via the stem or trunk. This transference of nourishment sustains the plant throughout the winter, while also halting its growth.
How to Grow Vegetables in the Winter
Successful winter gardening relies on three main aspects: preparedness, protected spaces, and the right plants. Yet, it’s not as hard one may think. With the appropriate knowledge, resources, and tools, your winter garden will flourish.
Prep and Plan
1. Protect Your Soil
While plants may go dormant, there is still a lot of activity underground.
One of the most important steps is to prepare your soil for the winter months. Soil keeps the vegetable’s roots enriched, nourished, and warm throughout the cold months. Essentially, the roots are the heart and brain of the plant. If you are transitioning a summer garden into winter, make sure to clear the soil surface by harvesting summer crops and cutting back vines or leafy stalks. Add an additional layer of protection by applying a heavy layer of mulch such as straw or chopped leaves.
2. Plan Your Patch
Plan which vegetables you want to grow. There are many considerations such as your favorite vegetables to cook and eat, saving money by growing veggies that are usually expensive, amount of upkeep, and the level of difficulty to grow the plant.
As a beginner, think about planting easily maintained vegetables such as leafy greens (kale, chard, and spinach). For more experienced gardeners, branch out with some vine growing squash such as spaghetti and butternut.
Choosing which vegetables make your list also depends on the type of winter garden structure you have. If you have raised beds with covers, you may want to consider a low growing plant instead of a high stalk. For those with a freestanding greenhouse, you will have more space and options to diversify.
Winter Garden Structures
1. Frost Cloths
A frost cloth is a great short-term tool for the transition from fall to winter when temperatures drop drastically at night, yet remain relatively high in the day. These protectant covers are made of spun-bonded polypropylene or poly-ethylene and allow both light and moisture to cross through. During the day, the soil heats up creating a greenhouse effect and then, when temperatures drop at night, the frost cloth retains the heat staving off frost.
2. Raised Beds with Lids
Raised garden beds are great for both summer and winter. While planting directly into the ground leaves little control over pest, weed, and drainage issues, raised beds can be installed with specific adjustments and liners for protection. In the winter, you can build or buy a cover or lid for preexisting structures. Covered raised beds create the same environment as frost cloths, yet are more durable if you live in climates with hail, snow, and severe freezing.
The most traditional and popular option for winter gardening is a greenhouse. With that said, there are different types of greenhouses, ranging from DIY projects to constructed glass and steel structures.
An easy DIY option is the hoophouse or polytunnel — a short, domed, tunnel-shaped structure. If you’re building one on your own use strong yet flexible materials such as PVC piping or bamboo. For those wanting a permanent structure, z35 steel is a good option. The dome skeleton is then covered with polythene, a popular plastic sheeting. For gardeners working with limited space and budget, the hoophouse is an excellent option!
The traditional greenhouse offers the highest level of protection, durability, and the easiest access to caring for your plants. Greenhouse design has grown to meet the demands of different space restrictions and budgets. With that said, there are generally two styles of greenhouses: attached or freestanding. For those hoping to DIY their own, buying a greenhouse kit or sticking with an attached or lean-to style are great, easy, and budget-friendly options. Freestanding greenhouses have an abundance of interior space for more plants and can be placed on any flat space on your property.
Winter-Friendly Vegetables for Your Favorite Soup or Stew
Some vegetables are incredibly resistant to chilly weather. When planning for your winter garden, make sure to consider plant-based recipe favorites to keep you warm, cozy, and nourished like these from the Food Monster App.
Creamy Chilled Avocado Soup with Wheatgrass/ One Green Planet
This spicy, cruciferous leafy green packs a bitter, yet tasty punch. While its generally used as an ingredient in salads, arugula can be incredibly diverse. An ounce of raw arugula provides almost two grams of protein, vitamins A, C, E, K, 27.2 mcg of folate, a small amount of dietary fiber, and a healthy dose of both Omega-3 (47.6 mg) and Omega-6 (36.4) fatty acids. Indulge this winter with this recipe for Creamy Chilled Avocado Soup with Wheatgrass.
Arugula is great for winter planting due to its high tolerance of cold weather, from light frosts to moderate freezes. If you live in a climate that experiences temperatures and weather more severe than moderate freezing, you’ll want to use a raised covered bed, greenhouse, or bring your arugula plants indoors. Arugula is also extremely easy to grow. No special feeding is required, use healthy soil that drains well and holds moisture, and moderate watering throughout the week. With that said, arugula does require full sunlight for most of the day, so make sure to be strategic about crop placement if you’re using a frost cloth or raised covered beds.
It’s also important to plant arugula in the appropriate seasons for optimal harvesting. It’s generally recommended to plant either in early spring for summer harvest — March through May — or in mid to late fall for a winter harvest — July through October.
Roasted Beet Soup/ One Green Planet
Whether cold or warm, beets are easy to grow and delicious! This root vegetable offers an individual earthy flavor. Beets have a very meaty texture, which is great for making hearty stews and soups. One cup of raw beets provides six grams of protein, vitamins A, C, E, K, B6, and B12, folate (148 mcg), Omega-3 (6.8mg) and Omega-6 (74.8 mg) fatty acids, as well as 21 milligrams of calcium, 31 milligrams of magnesium, 54 milligrams of phosphorous, and a whopping 442 milligrams of potassium. Try a few of these beet-based recipes: Mushroom and Root Vegetable Stew, Roasted Beet Soup, Beet Gazpacho, or Beet and Potato Soup.
Beets are long-season, cool weather crops, meaning, much like arugula, they are resistant to cold climates, frost, and close to freezing temperatures.
This root veggie requires especially nutritious soil with a high level of phosphorous and a moderate level of nitrogen. Phosphorous increases blooms and root growth, while nitrogen nourishes plants but can also cause an excess of unwanted greens and tiny bulbs. If you have already laid down your soil, perform an at home soil pH test to measure the levels of phosphorous and nitrogen. If you haven’t applied soil yet, talk to the professional at your local nursery and they can help you choose the best soil for your needs.
Plant beets 1/2 inch deep and at least one to two inches apart to provide ample grow room. Plant as early as March or April for a summer harvest or as late as September or early October for a winter harvest.
Surinamese Spicy ‘Fish’ Soup/ One Green Planet
Traditionally used in Asian dishes, bok choy has a mild flavor and is easy to cook. Bok choy is also chalk full of nutrients and antioxidants including vitamins C, A, and K, as well as iron, manganese, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Diversify your warm-weather favorites with Surinamese Spicy ‘Fish’ Soup, Ginger Bok Choy Soup, Simple Aromatic Pho, Hot and Sour Mushroom Soup With Bok Choy, or Cranberry Bok Choy Soup.
As part of the cabbage family, bok choy is a relatively easy plant to grow as long as you know the rules. While bok choy is tolerant of light freezing in both spring and fall, cold temperatures can damage or kill the plant. This means that planting in raised covered beds or greenhouses are the best options. Make sure to mix balanced fertilizer into your soil, plant your seeds with at least nine inches spacing between your rows, and choose a location in your yard where these plants can receive full sunlight for a majority of the daylight hours.
Spiced Butternut Squash Winter Vegetable Soup/ One Green Planet
This sweet and savory squash is truly a winter favorite. It warms and fills the tummy, while also offering a slew of nutritional benefits. One cup of cooked butternut squash has four and a half grams of protein, vitamins A, C, E, K, and B6, folate (39 mcg), Omega-3 (49.2 mg), Omega-6 (28.7 mg) fatty acids, as well as a healthy dose of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, and water. Try a few of these butternut squash recipes: Spiced Butternut Squash and Mung Bean Stew, Apple Butternut Squash Soup, Spiced Butternut Squash Winter Vegetable Soup, or Roasted Butternut Squash Soup.
This wonderfully delicious vegetable is incredibly easy to grow, yet requires ample space to spread its vines. Each vine generally offers 10 to 20 fruits, which means you’ll have plenty of leftover squash to freeze for later use. With that said, even though butternut squash is a winter squash, the seedlings are incredibly delicate and they require warm soil and protection from frost. If you plan to grow butternut squash during the coldest months of the year, it’s highly recommended to use a well-constructed greenhouse.
While other veggies can be planted directly into flat garden beds, squash requires high-temperature soil for germination which can be obtained by planting the seeds in small soil hills about 18 inches high. Place your seeds one inch deep and four inches from the nearest plant. From germination to mature fruit, you’re looking at a wait time of about 110 to 120 days.
Cleansing Detox Soup/ One Green Planet
Cabbage is king of soups and stews. It’s easily softened the longer it’s cooked, yet resiliently retains flavor and texture. One cup of cooked, winter-hearty Savoy cabbage has six grams of protein, four grams of dietary fiber, vitamins A, C, and B6, folate (66.7 mcg), 59 mcg of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, as well as calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and sodium. Incorporate a few of these cabbage heavy soups and stews to your winter menu: Spicy Cabbage Turmeric Stew, Purple Magic Soup, Cleansing Detox Soup, or Spicy Cabbage Hotpot.
The most important note regarding cabbage is it’s long growing season. This means you’ll have to be on top of planting in late spring or early summer if you want to have cabbage throughout the winter. Cabbage is one of the best cold resistant crops available, but the heartiest is Savoy cabbage. Make sure to keep cabbage roots moist via regular watering. As your cabbage grows larger and taller it’s recommended to give the stalk extra support by building up soil around its base.
Indian Cauliflower and Lentil Stew/ One Green Planet
It’s time to get on board with cauliflower! While it offers a bland taste when eaten raw, its ability to absorb and retain flavor makes it a perfect ingredient for a flavorful dish. This cruciferous veggie runs the gambit of nutrition including A, C, E, and K and offers a healthy serving of magnesium, folate, phosphorous, and sodium.
Invigorate your taste buds with these hearty cauliflower recipes: Indian Cauliflower and Lentil Stew, Jamaican Brown Stew Cauliflower, Butter Cauliflower Stew With Roasted Garlic, Black Bean, Cauliflower, and Sweet Potato Stew, 5-Ingredient Cauliflower Soup, Cheesy Roasted Cauliflower Soup, or Creamy Cauliflower Curry Soup.
Cauliflower is at its best in temperatures that remain in the sixties — not too hot and not too cold — which means a greenhouse may be the best-growing environment. Make sure that your cauliflower receives at least six hours of full sun daily and plant in moist, fertile, and pH balanced soil.
Plant your winter cauliflower garden at least six to eight weeks before the first frost. This ensures that the seeds will have ample time to mature in warm soil before temperatures drop. Cauliflower requires space to grow. Make sure to space your cauliflower seeds 18 inches apart per row and provide 30 inches between rows.
Rosemary Black-Eyed Pea Soup/ One Green Planet
This leafy green is considered a superfood and a vegetable powerhouse. Along with a high fiber content, kale also has a high amount of vitamin C and K, iron, calcium, chlorophyll, and antioxidants. Try a few of these kale-based recipes: Spicy Peanut Mushroom Kale Soup, Winter White Bean, Potato, and Kale Soup, Sweet Potato Soup With Kale and Crunchy Pine Nuts, Rosemary Black-Eyed Pea Soup With Kale, Spring Kale and Dill Soup With Rice, or White Bean and Kale Soup.
Kale makes an incredibly wonderful winter veggie for two reasons: it’s a cold-resistant and hearty veggie that is part of the cabbage family and colder weather brings out a nuttier and sweeter flavor.
For a winter garden, plant your kale six to eight weeks before the first frost. This will change depending on where you live, but this generally means planting by the end of September or early October. Kale needs full sun, fertile soil that has been enriched with compost and fertilizer, and a balanced pH. Plant about an inch deep in the soil and space 18 to 24 inches apart.
Do not over water! It’s recommended to water about one to one and a half inches per week — this means a light watering on a daily basis. Kale is incredibly cold-resistant, which means a frost cloth is necessary, but a greenhouse or raised cover bed is not.
Sage, Onion, and White Bean Soup/ One Green Planet
The best bang for your buck! Onions are an easy winter vegetable and are an incredibly diverse ingredient. The powerful and spicy onion taste provides a great base for soups and stews, emboldening slightly lackluster recipes. One cup of cooked onion provides a great source of healthy fat (3.3 grams), protein (7.9 grams), vitamins A and C, as well as folate (31.5 mcg), Omega-3 (8.4 mg) and Omega-6 (147 mg) fatty acids, and calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous. Try this recipe for traditional French Onion Soup or get creative with alternate ingredients such as this Sage, Onion, and White Bean Soup or Onion Soup with Apple.
Winter onions are characterized by their green tops and their three-inch bulbs. While their flavor is slightly subdued, they grow in bunches allowing for more to be harvested to amplify the lacking taste. While its recommended to plant many cold-weather vegetables in early fall, winter onions can actually be planted any time between October and December, preferably before the first hard freeze.
Onions are intolerant of the shade, so make sure to choose your winter onion garden carefully. Full sun for more than six hours daily is necessary. Plant your onions two to four inches deep with four to six inches between each bulb. If you live in extremely cold climates, it’s recommended to put down a layer of mulch for extra protection during the coldest of the winter months.
Full maturity is reached two to three months after planting winter onions. The longer you wait, the more opportunity these veggies will have to multiply and the larger the crop. Harvest winter onions by carefully digging up the bulb. Make sure to leave a couple bulbs in the ground and they will continue to multiply throughout the winter months providing you with a never-ending supply of onions!
One-Pot French Canadian Split Pea Soup/ One Green Planet
Sweet peas, green peas, split peas, you simply can’t go wrong! This small and delicate, yet hearty vegetable offers a quick-cooking and delicious ingredient for soups and stews. As part of the legume family, winter peas are an excellent source of protein. One cup of cooked peas offers almost 30 grams of protein, as well as vitamins A, C, E, K, B6, choline, folate (101 mcg), close to 162 milligrams of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, an ample portion of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium. Try the gambit such as Slow-Cooked Split Pea Soup With Homemade Croutons and Coconut Bacon, 6-Minute Green Pea Soup, One-Pot French Canadian Split Pea Soup, or Serrano Pepper and Sweet Pea Soup.
Winter peas are a staple in plant-based diets and they happen to be incredibly cold-resistant. They can survive light to hard freezes, but cannot survive temperatures that drop below zero degrees Fahrenheit. For a summer harvest, plant between March and May, and for a winter crop plant your peas by October.
Prep your soil with nitrogen-rich feed by adding balanced fertilizer, composted manure, borage, or coffee grounds. Plant seeds one to two inches deep and space the rows at least seven inches apart. Make sure your peas get full sunlight, generally six hours daily, and be prepared to protect your plants with a frost cloth.
Spanish Chickpea and Sweet Potato Stew/ One Green Planet
The beauty of the potato is the size of its family. The options are broad, from russet to white, purple to yellow, fingerling to petite. While there are hundreds of varieties of potatoes, one of the heartiest, tastiest, and budget-friendly types is the russet. One large russet potato offers 31 grams of protein, 52 grams of starch, a healthy dose of both vitamins A, C, and K, as well as folate (77 mcg), choline (44.8 mcg), 124 milligrams of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, and fluoride. Explore this vegetable family with these hearty stew recipes: Hearty Potato and Mushroom Stew, Hearty Purple Potato Stew, Tomato and Potato Stew, Korean Spicy Potato and Vegetable Stew, Sweet Potato, Quinoa, and Red Lentil Stew, or Spanish Chickpea and Sweet Potato Stew.
While potatoes are easy to grow, they have to properly prepared for a winter harvest. This typically means that you will need to trick your potato seeds “into thinking they have gone through a winter” already. When buying seeds, make sure that they are “summer-sown” and this will be done automatically. If you use your own, make sure to store them in a very cold location (such as a refrigerator or cold storage) for a couple weeks before planting.
It’s also important to protect potatoes from frost. This means that you’ll need to plant them in a raised covered bed or greenhouse. Plant at least two inches deep and feel free to “earth up” by adding additional mulch, straw, or horticultural fleece as your potatoes sprout above ground.
In order to make the most out of your winter-friendly vegetable garden, try downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 10,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
Lead image source: Shutterstock